Where the Wild Things Are gets one thing crucially right about the 1963 Maurice Sendak picture book on which it’s based: Max, the young hero, is not a nice kid.
This is quite unlike most children’s films, which prefer plucky orphans, good-hearted wallflowers or other sympathetic figures. When we first meet Max (a fresh, unaffected Max Records), he’s wearing a ratty wolf suit, growling with a startling ferocity and chasing the family dog with a fork (the fork, the most troubling element, is taken directly from the book). We eventually learn that Max can be sweet and has an astonishing imagination, but he’s also savage.
Directed by Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) and written by Jonze and novelist Dave Eggers (who is having a superb screenwriting year after previously working on Away We Go), Where the Wild Things Are is about the more difficult qualities of kids: their wildness, yes, but also their fearfulness, uncertainty and even cruelty. We like to think of childhood as a time of innocence and simplicity, but an honest trip down memory lane reveals it wasn’t always like that.
The film makes time for innocent moments, including a lovely, early sequence that captures the bliss of creating the perfect snow fort. Yet Where the Wild Things Are is mostly interested in the more complicated aspects of Max’s life. His single mom (Catherine Keener) seems to save her laughter for her boyfriend and her frowns of frustration for Max. His older sister spends all her time with her friends. In science class, his teacher talks about the inevitable death of the sun.
It all comes to a boil one evening at dinner. While I won’t give away the details, I will say that Max’s act of defiance involves far more than threatening to eat his mother up, which is what happens in the book. Max ends up running away, literally and into his own fantasy world – to where the wild things are.
Here is where Jonze’s talents flourish. Staggering landscapes, giant puppets, seamless computer effects and elaborate sets come together to create a completely unique vision, one that is drawn from Sendak’s iconic images and then goes farther, stranger. The Wild Things live in a world of endless possibilities and unlimited freedom – and the dangers such a scenario presents.
Leading the pack of creatures – 12-foot tall amalgamations of real animals and mythical figures – is Carol (matter-of-factly voiced by James Gandolfini). Aside from his giant round head and wide mouth full of shark-like teeth, Carol is a lot like Max – needy, short-tempered, unruly. When Max happens upon Carol and his cohorts, a feud has broken out among them. Instead of eating Max, they decide to make him their king in hopes that he can restore order. “Will you keep out all the sadness?” they ask. He better, considering the crown they give him is taken from the licked-clean bones of the previous king.
As Max reigns – with all the capriciousness of a kid picking dodgeball teams at recess – the movie unfolds like the best play date ever. Max and the Wild Things build a gargantuan fort out of boulders and trees, go rampaging through the forest and sleep in a giant pile of horns and fangs and fur. It’s idyllic in its own way, yet underneath lies the danger that the Wild Things might turn truly ferocious.
That’s probably enough detail to make it clear that Jonze and Eggers have expanded Sendak’s book into a larger consideration of the underbelly of childhood – how insecurities and fears can eat kids alive if they don’t grow out of them. The right word for the childlike creativity of Where the Wild Things Are isn’t magical or wondrous or cute. From the bizarrely lifelike creatures to the howling tribal soundtrack by Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, this is a very different sort of children’s fantasy. A better adjective would be unnerving, even alarming. Actually, I know the word – it’s the one that came to mind when describing Max. Where the Wild Things Are is wonderfully feral. It bites.